Havelock, McLuhan & the history of education

Just a note about the Thomas Nashe dissertation. Studying Nashe’s style led me to look at the rhetorical education of his day.  I soon got on to the history of this form of symbolic action. Having tracked it back to 5th Century Athens, I moved forward, relating the rhetorical program to the dialetical studies, and especially, to the grammatical studies.  (…) Philologists since the Renaissance have pooh-poohed this inclusive approach [of the trivium and particularly of grammar], but it lasted until the time of Bishop Sprat [1635-1713] and got going again with the Symbolists. (McLuhan to Tom Wolfe, October 25, 1965, Letters 326)1

Homer knows nothing about private identity: his world is that of the acoustic epic, the tribal encyclopedia of memorized wisdom which Eric Havelock reported so ably in his Preface to Plato. The Homeric epics were part of this acoustic wisdom that preceded literacy and were phased out by literacy. Homer was wiped out by literacy, even though he had been the educational establishment of the Greeks for centuries. (…) Along came the phonetic alphabet, and Plato seized on it and said: “Let us abandon Homer and go for rational education.” Plato’s war on the poets was not a war on poetry but a war on the oral tradition of education. (McLuhan, ‘Living in an Acoustic World‘, 1974.)

Although scholars regularly attribute Havelock’s influence on McLuhan to his 1963 Preface to Plato, there are many indications in McLuhan’s writings that he was already clear about Havelock’s main points in that monograph years before its appearance. Here he is, for example, in the 1960 ‘New Media and the New Education’, whose importance to McLuhan may be seen in the fact that he published this essay repeatedly with different titles and small changes and even included it as an ‘Exhibit’ in his Report on Project in Understanding New Media from that same year of 1960:

oblivion of the structure of the page, and of print itself, extends to writing in the ancient world as well. For the alphabetic translation of the audible into the visible had huge consequences such as mark off Greece and Rome from all other societies which lacked phonetic means of codifying and translating experience into analytic, visible terms. 

McLuhan continued this passage in ‘New Media and the New Education’ with reference to education after Gutenberg, but there are many parallels in his description to Havelock’s longtime investigation into changes in Greek education following the introduction of literacy:

Let us suppose for a moment that a team of present-day [educational] testers had been available in the year 1500 to find out whether the new book or reading machines and instructional materials were capable of doing the plenary traditional job of education in the future. Would not this team, even as it would today, ask whether the privately read word could measure up as a means of teaching and learning to the memorized [tale]2 and its formidable extension in oral exegesis and group disputation? Since we know that [literacy]3 wiped out the educational procedures of the preceding centuries, we can say that the testers would have been quite wrong in asking whether the new could compete with the old when the new had only one mode of procedure, namely to erase and to brainwash the older culture. Our testers today are still geared to the static assumptions of the print form and ignore the structural dynamics of the electronic form. In 1500, as in 1960, they could report variations in the facility with which educational skills in a wide range of subjects are achieved by print or by educational television. But they have no regard for the new patterns of perception and sensibility which are subliminally imposed on us all by new structures for codifying and moving information. For the new structures modify our means of apprehending past and present. They recreate our sense of space and time, of teaching and learning.4

In sum, as the same essay concluded:

any new structure for codifying experience and of moving information, be it alphabet or photography, has the power of imposing its structural character and assumptions upon all levels of our private and social lives, even without benefit of concepts or of conscious acceptance. That is what I’ve always meant by “the medium is the message“.

Havelock had been investigating along these lines for decades.  He had, for example, published ‘Evidence For The Teaching Of Socrates’ in 1934 and ‘The Significance of the Greek Sophist’ in 1938. A lecture before the APA in 1940 was titled ‘The Professional Technique of the Sophists’. While he was not yet focused then on the fundamental role of literacy in educational changes dating to around 400 BC, he was already clear in the 1930s that a teaching system in which memorization and family apprenticeship were key features of education was giving way in the late 5th century in Athens to a new professional system of instruction associated with the sophists. He sensed that profound changes in social and individual identity were precipitated by these changes and that Plato and Aristotle might be read against this background as theoreticians and practitioners (in the Academy and Lyceum) of a revolution in education that was then affecting all aspects of Greek life and culture.

When McLuhan arrived in Toronto in 1946 he did so as an expert in the history of education in western civilization.  As he described in his note to Tom Wolfe given above, he had written his 1943 Cambridge PhD thesis on the “quarrel” of the disciplines in the educational trivium only a few years before and earlier in that year of 1946 he had brought this history from his thesis (which had terminated with Thomas Nashe in 1600) into the present day with an essay published in the Classical Journal, ‘An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’.5

Surely McLuhan would have been greatly interested to learn that a young (only 8 years older than himself) professor of classics at Toronto was concentrating his research on education changes leading up to the point in time and place from which McLuhan’s Nashe thesis took its start. Havelock was, in effect, working on the prolegomena to McLuhan’s study of the trivium. (When McLuhan finally finished The Gutenberg Galaxy for publication in 1962, it was exactly with this prolegomena that it took its beginning. For discussion see ‘Parry and Lord in McLuhan‘.) Although by 1946 Havelock was already beginning to focus on oral vs literate information storage as a key to such educational and social changes, it was almost certainly the broader topic of the history of education which first interested McLuhan in his work. 

In the 1940s Havelock modulated his research in the directions of media research and of literary analysis, particularly of Virgil.  Both of these would profoundly influence McLuhan.  But it seems that it was the history of education which provided the common background between Havelock and McLuhan upon which these influences would have their effect.


  1. McLuhan’s 1943 Cambridge PhD thesis was nominally on Thomas Nashe (1567-1601), but was mostly a history of the trivium over the two millennia from 400 BC to 1600.
  2. McLuhan has ‘manuscript’ here, not ‘tale’, since he is describing the transition from the middle ages to the renaissance following the introduction of printing. ‘Tale’ has been substituted to highlight the parallels with Havelock’s research into the earlier transition in Greece from orality to the literary.
  3. McLuhan has ‘printing’ here, not ‘literacy’. See the prior note for the reasoning behind this substitution.
  4. Since McLuhan had been thinking and publishing along these lines throughout the 1950s, it is conceivable that the influence between his work and Preface to Plato may have run, in some yet to be determined part, in the other direction from what is usually supposed.
  5. An Ancient Quarrel in Modern America’ was originally a lecture given in St Louis in late 1944.